Divergent thinking is the process of letting your brain wander to where it seems to jump from point to point without any particular path. By allowing yourself to do this, you find yourself able to develop new ideas and creative ways of addressing problems, much easier than sitting down and trying to force them out.
How does divergent thinking work?
J.P. Guilford defined the terms convergent thinking and divergent thinking in 1967, and it’s been widely used in studying creativity since. In divergent thinking, loose associations between ideas are utilized, letting the brain then form connections that it may have missed before when solely focused on a distinct path of getting to an answer. In most systems, divergent thinking is used to develop new ideas and then convergent thinking (the opposite process) is used to bring them together into a cohesive plan of action.
According to one theory, we are much more likely to use divergent thinking as children, and as we are conditioned to learn a certain way of doing something (a procedure for answering math questions, or how to analyze a book’s theme, etc.) we lose the habit. Over time, this leads us to becoming stuck in our ways and keeps us from looking to your environment in unique ways.
Chances are you already know of at least one method of divergent thinking, without even realizing it. The most common example of divergent thinking is brainstorming. In the pure sense, brainstorming produces a list of ideas that are unfiltered by our preconceived notions on what may be a valid solution or what might actually work in a given situation. Unfortunately, we often constrain ourselves to trying to approach a topic through a certain lens with a concrete goal, so our brainstorming sessions end up being a bit limited.
What does divergent thinking look like?
A classic example of divergent thinking at work is the thought experiment on the number of different ways to use a paper clip. In this experiment, people are asked to come up with as many unique ways to use the paper clip and are not limited to the traditional use of holding paper.
When given the chance, most people top out around 10, maybe 15. Those that use divergent thinking more regularly tend to make it much further, with the best coming much closer to 200 unique uses.
The reason behind this is that we are often constrained by what we know paper clips to be used for regularly, and very rarely do we come across anything different. So, why would we even think of anything else?
But, creatives know better. If you want to be more creative, you need to move beyond your usual practices.
How do we incorporate it into our lives?
My favorite time to practice divergent thinking is in the shower. It’s almost impossible for me to just focus on thinking about one thing when I’m getting cleaned up. If the shower doesn’t work for you, there are many other situations, such as while you are washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or other semi-mindless tasks, that let your brain wander.
In fact, you might already be practicing divergent thinking without even realizing it, but now it’s time to do it on purpose! By using divergent thinking, you’ll be better positioned to find the creative solution to any problem, as well as come up with ideas well beyond what you were initially trying to solve.